We're at the balloon festival in Prescott Valley, Arizona.
Balloon festivals get quite large: there's one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which gets nine hundred balloons and a million spectators. But this one is rather smaller; perhaps 15 balloons. Prescott Valley is a smallish country town, not far from the larger township of Prescott. Every year for the past few, they've held a festival in which a whole bunch of different things go on: a fair, a parade, a marathon, an air show, and the balloon festival.
It's always the case, on any given outing, that there will be either too many or too few crew. This time, it's way too many. I signed on fairly early in the process, when our pilot, Dave, was struggling to find crew; but crew have subsequently appeared from every available crevice, and now we've got about eleven crew, plus pilot. I've travelled down with Heather, April and Jeff (which, against all probability, is short for "Jennifer"). I'm rooming with Dave and his wife Kristen, and Frank. Frank has been on Dave's crew pretty much forever, and if Dave had given anybody the title of crew chief, Frank would be it. He is also Tarp Guy: if you want the tarpaulins rolled neatly, Frank's your man.
Also on the crew is Dana, another regular, who has her significant other in tow; four of Kristen's relatives and in-laws; and a local named Diane. Having a local on your crew is a Good Thing: they know the weather and the roads.
Dave usually tows the balloon around in a trailer behind his truck (which in Australia would be called a ute), but for this longer trip he's loaded it directly into the truck bed. It's rather a squeeze; with everything packed as tightly as possible, it doesn't quite fit, so the truck's tail gate is down, and everything is held in place with numerous straps.
We're staying at the official hotel, and it's easy to know that you're in the right place, because there are numerous trucks with balloons in the back scattered around the parking lot. We get together in Dave's room, and plot out the next morning's movements: basically, we are all going to meet on the field at a particular time in the morning and take it from there.
Then we go to dinner, which given the number of people involved is nearly as complicated.
After dinner, we crash, in anticipation of tomorrow's early start. I'm sleeping right next to Frank, which is something of an experience. He has a diverse repertoire of snores, one of which is particularly unusual. There's a tiny sort of whickering noise that the pilot flame on the burner makes when you move into a layer of air that is moving in a different direction, thus causing a slight breeze across the flame; and you become attuned to this noise, because it tells you that you're about to start moving in a new direction. Frank's special snore sounds just like this, and so whenever he makes this particular noise, I'm suddenly wide awake, thinking, "Wind's changing!"
We all make it to the field. There is some fairly heavy competition for spots, as there are more balloons than there is space -- laying a balloon out takes a lot of ground. We get a good space for Dave's truck, and the rest of the crew vehicles get parked in the lot at the end of the field. We then participate in the traditional early morning stand-around-and-watch-the-weather. Various people put up pibals (toy helium balloons), and we watch them float away. There's a pilot's briefing, in which the event organisers read out the weather forecast that they've just gotten from the nearest airport. (Cautious pilots have already called up for their own forecasts.)
Everything seems to be go, so we lay out our balloon. But we don't inflate.
This morning's event is a hare-and-hound race. Racing balloons seems a bit odd at first, since they all share the same wind and will therefore move at the same speed. But balloonists have figured ways around this, and have a number of race-like games they play. Today's, the hare and hound, involves one balloon taking off, flying for a while, and landing, and everyone else trying to get as close as possible to that spot. Because of the crowding that would result, you don't actually land where the hare landed; you just drop a bean-bag as you pass over. Except that the organisers don't have enough bean-bags for everyone, so pilots who miss out are told to simply drop a piece of equipment; a glove or something. One of the rules of the hare and hound is that nobody is allowed to start cold-filling their balloons until the hare has left the ground; this gives him a head-start.
The hare takes off and drifts away to the south-east, and a dozen petrol-powered cold-fill fans start up all over the field. Our balloon, Sparky, gets away near the start of the pack. On board are Dave; two of Kristen's relatives; and a local sponsor of the festival, who gets a free ride in return for her sponsorship. The hare has dropped low; heading for a ridge where he can get some valley wind, which will take him in a different direction, thus forcing everyone else to follow him down to try to catch the same wind.
We chat with Diane, the local, about what roads we should take to get to where everyone appears to be headed, and we walk back to our vehicle. Kristen will be driving Dave's truck. Heather will be driving our chase vehicle, and I get to sit in the front passenger seat, as I will be navigating and communicating on the radio. There's one other balloon and crew on our frequency this morning: the local Remax ballon. (Remax are a real estate agency whose logo is a hot-air balloon, and thus are in the habit of sponsoring balloons to carry their name.)
Just as we get to the car, the radio springs to life:
Kristen: Sparky, this is chase one.
Kristen: Sparky, chase one.
(Our radios are low power, and when we don't have direct line of sight on the balloon, are quite short range. Sparky has already dropped out of view.)
Kristen: Sparky, chase one.
Doug: Chase one, this is chase two. He can't hear you; ask Remax to relay.
Kristen: Remax, this is Sparky chase one.
Remax: Er, go ahead, Sparky chase.
Kristen: Remax, will you relay to Sparky, and ask him: where are the truck keys?
Remax: Sparky, this is Remax.
Remax: Sparky, your ground crew want to know where the truck keys are.
Remax: Sparky chase, he say's they're in his pocket.
Nevertheless, it eventuates that Dave has had the foresight to place a spare key in a magnetic box stuck inside the bumper. They accordingly find these, and are able to follow. By this time they are considerably behind us.
We have driven south to the highway, and have followed it east around the ridge. The wind has picked up incredibly, and we are watching balloons appear over the ridge and storm overhead at a speed easily twice as fast as I have ever seen a hot air balloon moving before. Dave later estimates the speed at over 20 knots (over 35 km/h). Most of the balloons, by the time they reach us, are directly over the highway and are therefore unable to land, and so they fly onwards. But Dave is a little further south, and is over a field. Unbeknownst to us, he has already tried to land once, and failed, the wind giving enough lift to carry him back into the air even though he let heat out of the balloon. He is much too busy to talk to us, so we only realise that he is going to attempt a landing in this field when we see him start to dip towards it. We pile back into the vehicle, and Heather floors it. We get to the side road ahead, which will get us as close as we're going to get to the field, and we are confronted by about four vehicles, all moving at a crawl, as their drivers all watch the spectacle of a balloon hitting the field at a flat sprint. None of them are watching us.
"Hit the horn", I say, and she does, and we roar toward the field, the engine doing five thousand rpm in first gear.
There is no hole visible in the fence. I, long legged, leap out, run to the fence and scissor-kick over it; while the rest drive on looking for a way in. The balloon will require a huge number of crew to hold it upright and steady in this wind.
But it's already over. Dave hauled the top out of the balloon while it was still twenty feet in the air, and by the time I reach it, it is lying flat, amidst the cow pats and cacti. We usually stop the balloon, lay out the tarpaulins, and then drop it, but not today: visibly running out of field, Dave just got down onto the ground as quickly as he could. I pace out the drag marks left by the basket: over 30 metres (100 feet). The rest of the crew from our chase vehicle turn up, except Heather, and we get the envelope tidied up into a long narrow bundle, to reduce its wind profile. April points out that Dave has managed to miss a particularly juicy cow pat by just a few centimetres.
Two of the passengers, Kristen's relatives, suffered somewhat during the flight: one fainted, and one gashed her leg on a fuel tank during the first attempted landing. The sponsor however, gives every sign of having greatly enjoyed her flight.
The other chase vehicle catches up, and so do some council workers that Heather had managed to locate, to unlock the gate for us. We get it all packed up, and return to the launch field. There are a number of tales told: one balloonist has burned a panel of his balloon due to high winds while he was inflating. Several more read the winds right and chickened out: having inflated their balloons, they pulled the top out again and simply didn't fly. The balloons that we saw speeding overhead, however, had traveled on for some distance, and then the wind had died. They had quiet, boring, safe, easy, upright landings.
We do breakfast, and then return to the hotel to nap, in order to be nice and awake for this evening's event.